Master Keyboard Controller
Two new master keyboards from Elka change Deborah Parisi's mind about the merits of silent keyboards.
As rack-mounted sound modules, have become more popular with manufacturers and musicians alike, the role of the keyboard controller has become correspondingly more important. Enter Elka's MK88 and MK55...
IF THERE'S ONE thing I love, it's a user-friendly piece of gear. You know the kind I mean - the sequencer on the ESQ1, the mouse/folder configuration on Ataris and Macs, the programming ease of the D50... And nothing drives me up a wall quite as quickly as a user-alienating obstacle course - owner's manuals translated literally from the Japanese, "complementary" software packages that won't talk to each other. Get the picture?
By my own standards, I should hate Elka's new master keyboard. It's just not an easy instrument to get a hold on. I mean, if you've already had to learn to play, program sounds and control your sequencer and drum machines, you certainly don't need to spend hours learning another set of commands, right?
Wrong - at least in the case of the MK88. From the feel of the 88 weighted keys to programmable control of everything from split points to polyphonic aftertouch, this is an instrument worth the effort. And in all fairness, the review model wasn't accompanied by a final owner's manual - just a xeroxed copy of something called "Temporary Operating Instructions." Perhaps when the final documentation has been prepared, learning to use the MK88 will be somewhat easier.
THE ELKA MK88 is a master control keyboard which has two independent MIDI Outs and thus can control up to 32 MIDI sound modules, keyboards and effects units. (Its sister, the MK55, has 61 unweighted plastic keys and is encased in a lightweight plastic package but otherwise is the same instrument.) 128 programmable Performance Presets are available, grouped into four internal banks of 16 and four external banks of 16 which can be stored in a RAM cartridge. Each Performance Preset contains specific information concerning splits, MIDI channels and dynamics curve settings; Set Up parameters such as program changes, volume settings, song selection and their like - included in the MIDI Patch portion of the preset - and general control settings for the various footswitches, function buttons, pedals, sliders and wheels. The 32-character LCD allows you to see what's going on (though I wished several times I could move it up or down, or adjust the brightness as it's sometimes difficult to read).
The instrument's panel provides an impressive display of programming options, including Split Point, Transpose, MIDI Channel, Dynamic and Aftertouch response curve settings, Function Buttons, Delay/Echo and Loop. Control is based on the multiplication grid principle - Up and Down buttons allow you to position a blinking red light on the left of the grid and selection buttons complete the picture (although it does get a bit more complex when you get into split zones). Also up top are two wheels (one that's sprung to return to the centre and one that stays put), four data sliders (one specifically assigned to control the tempo of an external sequencer or drum machine), and Start/Stop buttons. To the right of the central controls are Bank/Split/Free buttons for use in setting up Performance Presets, and Editing controls.
The back panel includes five MIDI sockets, two each for MIDI Out 1 and MIDI Out 2, and one for MIDI In. MIDI Out 2 provides MIDI Clock output for use with drum machines and sequencers - a real necessity for a master controller these days. The MIDI In jack performs the normal job of allowing an external MIDI clock to disconnect the internal clock, but it also allows an external instrument to be added to the control system of the MK88 so that all functions programmed into Split Zones 5 and 6 will be valid for the external instrument. The idea is that you can link up a synth that doesn't have the MK88's capabilities - the old DX7, the DW8000 or whatever - and create a split keyboard where one didn't exist before. The system works by combining the output of the external keyboard with the processing of the MK88. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to pull this off. Maybe when the owner's manual is finished...
Also on the back panel are two jacks for pedals, which can be assigned to control volume, modulation, pitch -, pitch +, pitch +/-, dynamic value (for setting the level of an adjustable response curve in any of the individual splits), foot control and touch. These accompany four footswitch pedal jacks, two of which can be used to control sustain, portamento, sostenuto, soft, modulation, program change, Elka Program (for use with other Elka instruments only) and Note On/Off. In addition, both the footpedals and footswitches can be assigned to send user programmed MIDI messages (programming is done in Hexadecimal) and any MIDI controller messages. The third pedal jack is dedicated to advancing through Performance Presets and the fourth is dedicated to activating the Full Mode (details to follow). The MP7, an optional accessory, is a pedal unit containing three pedals and three connectors on one board, making connection and foot operation really convenient
THE FIRST STEP in programming the controller is the selection of split zones - up to six for each Performance Preset. These zones, which can overlap for layered effects, can be programmed in Split mode or Full mode. In Split mode, each of the programs assigned to a zone will only play in their zone, but by turning on Full mode with the footswitch, the patch for the currently active zone will appear across the whole keyboard. In effect, this allows you to have up to six different programs available within one Performance Preset.
Setting the zones requires a number of keystrokes (as do all of the functions). The Panel button is depressed to enable the editing buttons; the LED indicator is moved to the Split Point position by means of Up/Down buttons; the appropriate Split button (1-6) is selected to determine the number assignment for the split; the Split button on the left is depressed and held; and the low and high notes desired to define the zone are struck. This probably sounds worse than it actually is - once I'd done it a few times, it only took about 10 seconds to set up a zone.
After you've got your zones set up, you move on to programming the various parameters for each of them. I started with Program Changes and ran into a minor problem - there's no really easy way of scrolling through patches on your module. To make program changes, you have to go through a four-step process that's even more cumbersome than setting zones. The MK88 is obviously not designed for an impromptu jam session.
"Zoning: You can link up a synth that doesn't have the MK88's capabilities and create a split keyboard where one didn't exist before."
Each zone can be assigned its own MIDI channel and transposed over a two-octave range (one in each direction). In addition, each zone can be programmed to respond to one of 19 different dynamics response curves (graphically depicted on the front panel) and one of eight different aftertouch response curves. The curves are of the positive and negative variety so that, if two zones overlap, the curves can be combined to create crossfades between two sounds. In addition, the MK88 can be set to send polyphonic or channel aftertouch, or the aftertouch messages can be converted internally to modulation data, pitch-bend, foot control, one of four volume ranges or they can be turned off. Consequently, even if your modules don't respond directly to aftertouch, the MK88 allows you to take advantage of this expressive control.
Next comes the setting of the instrument's various general controls. You can activate the various split zones for full mode operation as well as assign the various sliders, footswitches and wheels to control the available parameters, as mentioned above. The settings for each of these can be different for every Performance Preset, so the MK88 can be easily reconfigured.
The delay/echo effect is a lot of fun to play around with. You can set it up to get a delayed replica of the original note played, or up to five echoes, in sync with the clock frequency (internal or external). Eight different time delays are available, which are based on functions of a bar played with respect to a fixed tempo - in other words, changing the tempo affects the speed of the echo.
The looping function is unusual on a controller keyboard, and to my mind is of dubious merit - how often would you need four bars of notes repeated over and over that you wouldn't put into your sequencer? (Maybe Elka are playing with the idea of including an internal sequencer in later MK models.) Nevertheless, it is fun to play around with, and perhaps you can find a better use for it.
Next in the hierarchical memory of the MK88 is the MIDI Patch, composed of 12 slots, each of which can be assigned to send different MIDI messages (Omni Off, Mono On, Program Change, Volume, and so on) whenever a Performance Preset is selected. You can select different MIDI Outs within one MIDI Patch, allowing a great deal of flexibility and control from one set-up. There is a Split Mute function which cancels the Note On transmission for a selected zone - it can come in really handy if you're using a lot of modules - and a Pause control which allows you to program a pause in the data transmission up to 500 milliseconds. User programmed MIDI messages are also created as part of a MIDI patch.
ELKA'S MK88/MK55 CONTROLLER is a powerful, sophisticated beauty, designed for the road (the 88 comes complete with a tough flightcase). However, even serious amateurs with a few modules, a sequencer, and a drum machine would love the extensive control this baby gives over a MIDI system.
A few of the features on the Elka seemed gimmicky to me - I doubt that pros will find a use for either the loop or the echo functions - but for the most part, this keyboard can improve the rest of your system by adding the kinds of control you've always wanted. The touch on the keyboard is excellent (it'll be a wrench to go back to those short, unweighted plastic keyboards after you've played the 88), and the memory capability is little less than phenomenal.
Considering the design and control, the price is reasonable (especially the MK55). I would definitely recommend that you check this out.
Prices MK88 with flight case. £1299.95: MK55 (no case). £599.95
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Review by Deborah Parisi
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